The Cove (Psihoyos, 2009)

Damning circumstantial evidence floods much of Louie Psihoyos’ The Cove, a superb documentary highlighting the economic, social, and political factors causing the annual slaughter of dolphins by Japanese fisherman. Using a myriad of potent interviews, telling confessionals, and not so civil acts of disobedience, the filmmakers construct a daring plan to document the operation from the inside out. It all leads to a bloody final crescendo confirming the film’s social and political thesis, haunting video footage of fisherman slowly stabbing the dolphins to death.

The images aren’t for the faint of heart, but thankfully their brutality does not define the story. The Cove is more spy film than eco-horror, focusing on undermining the process in question rather than simply illuminating the brutalities at work. Psihoyos and his devoted team get their inspiration from legendary environmentalist Richard O’Barry, who ironically got rich in the 1960’s training the dolphins for Flipper. This dynamic gives The Cove a much needed interior conflict to parallel the exterior danger the crew puts themselves in, staging reconnaissance missions into the titular cove and enduring constant harassment by Japanese police and hooligans.

Arrogance posing as tradition seems to be the root of all evils in The Cove, at least for the corrupt Japanese politicians and businessmen convoluting their message that whaling and dolphin killings are apart of their heritage. This smells like bullshit to a lot of smart, diverse people, and The Cove lines them up to deconstruct and destroy this devastating operation. The Cove presents a one-sided onslaught of information and material, avoiding a journalistic slant in favor of an all out blitzkrieg on behalf of the small cetaceans of the world. Their actions speak louder than words.

Manufactured Landscapes (Baichwal, 2006)

Manufactured Landscapes, a poorly executed documentary on crucial subject matter, begins with a haunting seven minute tracking shot across an epic Chinese parts factory. The movement, while calculated, invites the eye to wonder and discover the many facets occurring before our eyes. We’re in the world of acclaimed photographer Edward Burntynsky, who’s callous voice often juxtaposes much of his personal quest to capture the developing industrial landscapes of China and Bangladesh. The sporadic voice-over has very little to do with the issues being discussed, namely pollution, globalization, and the environment, undermining the stunning visuals (still and motion pictures) paralleling the trek. Director Jennifer Baichwal should have let Burntysky’s images speak for themselves,  saving the run-of-the-mill artistic musings for a lecture or debate.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (Gordon, 2007)

While entertaining and somewhat inspiring, The King of Kong suffers from one giant flaw. Its story, that of nerdy video gamers and their strange pursuit of individual gaming records, doesn’t hold interest beyond the surface giggles and befuddlement of the subject being discussed. With the aid of flashy montages, gladiator-like standoffs, and catchy music, Seth Gordon’s documentary builds these man-children up under the assumption that their merit represents something important or meaningful. Half way through the film, we realize only Steve Wiebe, the family man who attempts to break a Donkey Kong world record despite the countless interference by the reigning geek elite, stands as the only dimensional character in this 2-D world. His pursuit and conflict warrants attention, but the film focuses on every other gamer fodder willing to speak out of turn, making for a tiresome and loathsome experience at times.

No End in Sight (Ferguson, 2007)

Waste. Misconduct. Incompetence. Humiliation. Ignorance. Anger. All describe certain facets of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq beginning in 2003 and Charles Ferguson’s brilliant documentary No End in Sight might be the most indicting statement of the Bush Administration put to screen. The disbanding of the Iraqi Army post invasion, the overspending by U.S. contractors, and the dismissal of the United Nations are just some of the massive mistakes by Bush et. al highlighted by Ferguson. It’s not only a compilation of the many bungles the White House and Pentagon have made over the past four years, but a stirring, coherent, and all encompassing narrative devoid of the Michael Moore type sensationalism which has undermined previous Iraq documentaries. Presented through a mosaic of talking heads, some American, some Iraqi, including soldiers, diplomats, journalists, and politicians all involved with operations on the ground in country, No End in Sight musters a strong and deliberately calculated voice on the subject of Iraq. No matter your opinions, Democrat or Republican, this film should anger you beyond words since it speaks to a lack of focus and understanding by America’s leaders, a clear resentment for common sense and history that’s both profoundly misguided and arrogant. As a film, its use of music and silence manipulate that anger even further toward dread, and it’s about time a filmmaker went the extra mile. I read one ludicrous statement by a local critic here in San Diego that No End in Sight is “mostly a talking heads movie, which is to say mostly not a movie.” Well, I’m of the opinion that films can take multiple formal styles, and when Ferguson’s film beautifully shifts from interviews, to archival footage, to graphic inserts, it resembles a great form of cinematic art on par with Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds. Maybe the backlash for the film’s almost pure informational aesthetic is a product of the shear amount of material presented all in one package. It’s staggering really, the way our government has handled the situation in Iraq, and that’s a tough pill for anyone to swallow. This is the most important film of the year.

Zoo (Devor, 2007)

Robinson Devor’s debut film Police Beat combines a lyrical and poetic aesthetic with a fascinating story of alienation and lost love. Now with Zoo, a flowery and almost unwatchable documentary on the accidental death of a man who’s demise was caused by having anal sex with a horse, Devor once again uses a hypnotic approach bridging form with the taboo subject matter. This time however, the result is an absurdly bad series of reenactments (not of the sexual acts thank God) and ridiculous voice-over by anonymous men attempting to explain their deeds. Zoo not only fails as a piece of non-fiction, it’s even worse as a character study. The film remains vague, elliptical, and pretentious when dealing with it’s subjects, leaving a sour taste of manipulation behind. I’m tired of filmmakers (yes you Wes Anderson too) thinking that just because a film feels visually complex it lets them off the hook in the story department. If there’s no heart and/or resonance underneath the glossy “poetic” surface, then there’s no point to making the film in the first place. The audience has to have some sort of dialogue with the material, and Devor’s soulless film pushes away the substance and context for shock value and sensationalism.

Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten (Temple, 2007)

You really get a sense of how influential Joe Strummer really was and still is by the impressive group of talking heads lauding his career in Julien Temple’s far reaching documentary. Everyone from Bono to Jim Jarmusch to Johnny Depp speak eloquently and forcefully about The Clash front-man and his striking run in the late 1970’s and early 80’s as one of the first politically and socially conscious rock stars. Beautifully integrating found footage of The Clash on tour and audio tapes of a Strummer radio program produced a few years before his death in 2002, The Future is Unwritten attempts to paint a dynamic picture of an icon tortured by the contradictions of fame. At over two hours long, the film gets tediously repetitive toward the end, but the overall impact works as a kind of introduction/love poem to an important artist whose contribution can’t be measured in simple record sales. The smiles and tears of his friends and colleagues say it all.- Screened at the 2007 Temecula Valley Film and Music Festival